Va. farmer switches from tobacco

Martin Miles, 60, of Stickleyville tries organic vegetables

August 29, 2002|By Mandy Catron | Mandy Catron,BRISTOL HERALD COURIER

STICKLEYVILLE, Va. - Sixty-year-old Martin Miles has been farming tobacco since the ripe old age of 6.

But a few years ago, he realized he no longer could support himself adequately on the crop to which he'd dedicated his entire working life, and he began to make some changes.

"One day, my partner John [Mullins] comes in and says to me, `I think we should grow organics,' and that's where the story changes," Miles said.

Today, Miles grows only 5acres of tobacco on his Stickleyville farm, dedicating the rest of his land to organic produce - vegetables grown without toxic fertilizers or sprays.

Miles' old tobacco barn is now the packing and shipping headquarters for Appalachian Harvest, an organization created to improve the environment and economy of southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee.

He said he had another reason for taking on organic farming.

"I've been around a long time," Miles said. "I've seen the watershed and the streams polluted, and I've got a grandson. I want to see his kids grow up here."

Miles said organic produce requires more work per acre than tobacco, but he said the results are well worth it.

"I don't know a farmer alive that don't like a challenge," he said. "Organics is a challenge."

The Lee County native was raised on 11 acres of tobacco.

"Everything was about organic back then," he said of his childhood. "We didn't have all these sprays and fertilizers. I grew up on tobacco, but things change. A farmer bounces back; he's got to look ahead all the time."

Miles, who said he didn't know what organic produce was five years ago, has come a long way since. Just last month, he received the Arthur Smith Award from the Coalition for Jobs and the Environment.

More than 100 acres of organic produce now is grown in Lee County, thanks largely to Miles' influence.

"It was a shock to me," he said of the award. "I didn't even know there was an Arthur Smith Award."

Today, Miles no longer works in the fields. Instead he oversees his farm and takes care of the business of Appalachian Harvest. The organization receives produce from 25 farms across the area to ship to local grocery stores and restaurants, and it's opening a new grading and shipping warehouse at the end of July.

Produce from Appalachian Harvest is sold at locally at Food City stores and is recognizable by its green and yellow "Appalachian Harvest" stickers. "We just about grow anything anybody could want vegetable-wise," Miles said.

In what little free time he has, Miles travels to other local farms and holds workshops on organic farming.

"We've seen a lot of progress; people are eager to learn," he said. "I just want to get the word out because I know a lot of folks who need it for their livelihood."

Appalachian Harvest is a part of the Abingdon-based organization Appalachian Sustainable Development. Miles and ASD Director Anthony Flaccavento visit local farms, spreading the word about the benefits of organic farming and finding practical solutions to problems the farmers encounter.

Now in his third year of organic farming, Miles said he plans to continue his work "'til they cover me up, I guess."

"Farming's been good to me. I like to smell the fresh-mowed hay in the mornings. My heart's there."

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